Scott Berkun hates prezi. We love it. Who’s right?

by Terry Gault

I admire Scott Berkun.  Let me say that right upfront.  His book, Confessions of a Public Speaker is a terrific read with lots of valuable tips, techniques, and ideas for speakers and presenters.  And anyone who can get their book published by O’Reilly Media deserves notice, especially if the book is focused on a ‘soft’ skill (I hate that phrase, BTW, as presenting and public speaking are actually quite HARD).

But I think Berkun has missed the point.

He’s right that focusing on slide transitions is a poor use of your time in building a good presentation.  My take is that Berkun has focused on only one aspect of Prezi and has missed the Big Picture.

Which is ironic because to me THAT is the fundamental difference between PowerPoint and Prezi – that Prezi requires that you think about the Big Picture while PowerPoint indulges the tendency to recycle and repurpose existing slides without truly thinking about the Big Picture.

I also agree that Prezi’s marketing team is also missing the point by focusing too much on zooming, etc in their messaging.

My experience is that Prezi forces me to think through my entire presentation holistically before I begin to construct my presentation at all.

The first decision I need to make when it’s time to construct a Prezi is this: What is my underlying message?  I call it the Main Takeaway Sentence as in, if you asked an audience member, “What did you takeaway from the presentation?’ they would reply with my Main Takeaway Sentence or a reasonable facsimile.  Then I need to ask: What is the central or recurring theme of my presentation?  I am confronted with that question because my ‘Home’ screen or canvas needs to express that theme visually with a Big Picture right up front.

When audience members walk into our workshops, they will see a screen that should begin to communicate our message by touching on the central theme of the workshop or presentation.

The next decisions I have to make are editorial and targeting decisions:

  • What do I need to cover in my talk?
  • How long do I have to cover it?
  • Who is my target audience?  What are their hot buttons – dreams, concerns, etc?

I MUST give these thought before I begin the process of constructing a Prezi.

Unlike PowerPoint which easily allows the repurposing of existing slides, Prezi’s really need to be built from the ground up.  That does not mean that I cannot use imagery, video or text that I have not already used for another presentation.  It simply means that I cannot copy and paste existing content from another Prezi.  I really need to start from scratch.

It strikes me as ironic that Berkun missed this Big Picture point about Prezi.  In fact, it strikes me that the theme of the piece is written from a PowerPoint-centric perspective.  It’s not written from Beginner’s Mind – examining Prezi without the shadow of PowerPoint looming in the background.

PowerPoint lacks this fundamental capability to transition back and forth between the Big Picture and components of that Big Picture – from the macro to the micro and back to the macro.

Reading the comments on the piece, you will see that:

  1. Carey addresses “the ability to present things visually in a manner that actually represents the concept being presented. In other words, items/words can be placed in relationship to others in a way that shows their connections.”  This is a very important point.
  2. Drew Banks, Prezi’s head of marketing, chimes in with “As an artist/architect who often presents at conferences on his large urban installations, Adam Somlai-Fischer originally developed Prezi so that he could show the audience a big-picture overview of his work and then zoom into the details.”

These two are echoing my observations about Prezi.

Nonetheless, Berkun’s piece is an important addition to the conversation about presentation tools and well worth reading.  What is your view?

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16 thoughts on “Scott Berkun hates prezi. We love it. Who’s right?

  1. Scott Berkun

    Thanks for the mention.

    You might be entirely right that Prezi helps you make better presentations. A few commenters on my post made the same claim and I can’t argue with it. What I can question is two things:

    1) It’s possible your sense of what makes your presentation better doesn’t map well to what your audience thinks. I’m not saying it’s true, I’m saying I don’t know. But a speaker (in this case, you 🙂 telling me they like a tool better doesn’t on it’s own make the case that the tool helps the audience. I’d love to see Prezi (or anyone) study this – ask veteran speakers to do 2 versions of the same talk, one in Prezi and one in something else, and study the results (in a counterbalanced way with all the other good experiment design you’d need to do) from the audience’s perspective. So far no one has.

    2) It’s possible most people who use Prezi aren’t as smart as you. I’ve never seen you speak. I’ve never seen you use Prezi. However I have seen several people use Prezi and in each case, as a member of the audience, I was convinced they’d have been much better off without it, as it solved their least important problems, and didn’t help at all with their most important ones.

  2. terrygault Post author

    Scott – I am flattered that you noticed our humble little blog.

    You make an excellent point that my ‘proof’ is entirely subjective based upon a very small sample of observable behaviors almost soley from my perspective – completely lacking in scientific rigor.

    It would be a terrific study for Prezi (or Keynote) to commission. Users of both tools claim the media is superior to PowerPoint. I’ll pass along that suggestion to Drew Banks at Prezi, who has sat in on one of my presentation workshops in SF. An A/B test for presentation software. Great idea! Maybe Google would fund such an A/B study … 😉

    Of course, I can only speak from my personal experience. That experience is comprised of 15 years of leading workshops both with and without projected media to mostly high tech companies (Oracle, eBay, Juniper Networks, EMC, etc.).

    Before that I spent 22 years in the theater and entertainment field as actor, teacher, director, writer, producer. I’ve spent my 10,000 hours in front of audiences. In addition, I have a video production company, where we produce videos to help companies explain their complex solution in a simple, fun way so that anyone can understand it in 3 minutes or less.

    In short, storytelling/presenting/communication is something I have done a bit of. I can only hope that I’ve gleaned some ability to read audiences in that time.

    Here’s what I do know: evocative visual metaphors elicit emotional responses from audiences when coupled with good storytelling. Anytime I can add another element of visual imagery to my presentations, it adds emotional punch.

    I feel that Prezi does this in a way that is more mesmerizing to an audience. It elicits a stronger emotional response that does PPT.

    Our basic workshop (Art of Presentation) uses a recurring visual theme of archery that reinforces a metaphor and story we use as a teaching tool. When I ask workshop participants if they can identify the theme of the workshop, the answers are now immediate since we started using Prezi. When using PowerPoint, there was often hesitation before people guessed correctly. That tells me the tool is helping me to communicate THAT specific message more effectively than PowerPoint.

    I make no claim to being any smarter … maybe like Einstein, I simply stick with presentation problems longer.

    So, you are right. I have no data that remotely resembles scientific rigor.

    But that’s my story and I am sticking to it!

    Thanks VERY much for participating in the conversation. You rock, sir!

  3. Scott Berkun

    You have a solid resume, but I was never questioning your experience. We have different opinions and I’m fine leaving it at that. Thanks for the reply.

    The only thing I’ll add, as someone also interested in film, is this:

    As a filmmaker, Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon) takes a certain approach to the centricity of visual movement and mesmerizing imagery. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris take another. At some point the distinction of who is a better, or more effective, storyteller is a matter of opinion, but I bet you can guess where my tastes reside 🙂

  4. terrygault Post author

    Scott – It never entered my mind that you were questioning my experience. I was merely making the point that though all I have to go by is my personal experience, that experience is substantial. Of course, my personal observations are merely ‘anecdotal evidence’, without true scientific rigor.

    I deeply appreciate your contribution to the conversation and your observations about visual movement in film and, more broadly, presentation media.

    Thanks again for voicing your thoughts.

  5. Martin Metzmacher

    I believe that Prezi brings us great liberation in the sense that we can first structure the information in a way that makes sense logically and then (in a second step) let’s you plot the different stages of the presentation.

    I think this is what’s refered to as the “big picture”.

    Plotting a route first actually makes sense when you think about something likea supermarket. You wouldn’t go and first pick all things for meal 1, then meal 2, etc…you just pick up stuff you need while you go along. But that would keep someone else from understanding what kind of meals you actually want to cook.

    Wah..not the best example ever – but it works (;

  6. terrygault Post author

    @Martin Metzmacher:
    Thanks for your contribution to the conversation. I understand why you use the “path” reference since Prezi uses that to navigate through the Prezi. For me the point about Big Picture flows from thinking about the Home Screen or the entire canvas of a Prezi. We consider what that first, basic image will be and how does it introduce and reinforce our recurring central theme.

    Again, thanks!

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  9. Bill Lux

    As a simple user who does NOT make my living making presentations or speaking professionally, but who HAS striven for years to augment my presentations clearly, effectively, and minimally, I am a firm Prezi fan. I never, ever, ‘talk off a slide’; that’s boring and insulting to my audience, and following Scott’s first rule of putting yourself in your audiences shoes it’s something I have always hated.

    In my in-expert opinion the ‘movement’ that Prezi provides allows me to highlight major points not just textually but visually, providing a dimension of reinforcement I may have spent hours trying (and failing) to attain with the primitive transitional effects Scott rightfully bemoans in Powerpoint. Similarly, the contextual ‘clustering’ on the canvas let’s me minimize the clutter on the screen and at the same time visually imply an effective relevancy that I could not attain else-wise. The simplicity of the Prezi interface slowed me down at first, but I find as I gained experience it allowed me to create faster, to the point that (anecdotally speaking) I have created major presentations in significantly less time than it would have taken me with PowerPoint. I know I sure spend a heck of a lot less time fiddling with each slide trying to get everything to flow correctly.

    As a non-professional presenter I simply find Prezi liberating and feel that it saves me time, while creating a more impactful presentation. Win-win as far as I am concerned.

  10. terrygault Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Bill. This is a great addition to the blog. Take care.

  11. John Laing

    I do not like Prezi yet, but I am working at it. That is why I am here. Always good to put new tools in the toolbox.

    What I am reading is that Prezi is like anchovies on pizza. It is a good idea to find out the taste of the recipients before using it as an ingredient, as it seems to get very strong reactions.

    I find it interesting that people say that Prezi makes them think more carefully about their presentations. That makes it a useful tool for thinking, rather than presenting, and might be an excellent reason to use it to prepare a talk, though not necessarily to present one.

  12. terrygault Post author

    John, Thanks for the contribution to the conversation. One of my clients made the point during a recent conversation that people who build bad PowerPoint presentations are likely to build bad Prezis and those who build good PowerPoint presentations are likely to build good Prezis. It’s not the tool that is the problem, it’s the user.
    Nonetheless, I find that Prezi gets stronger reactions, as you say, and that is yet another reason to use it. It garners reactions and audience attention more powerfully than PowerPoint.
    Thanks again.

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